Levatter and Brennan Converge
By David Henderson
My friend Ross Levatter, whose article I lauded in my previous post, often makes fun of me for being so optimistic. By the way, as I told him recently, the best argument I’ve ever seen against my optimism was this one, from commenter Bob Lince on a previous post on this issue:
The famous movie director Billy Wilder was an Austrian Jew who worked as a newspaperman in Germany before the rise of National Socialism led to his emigration to the U.S. In 1945 he returned to Germany with the U.S. Army in order to supervise the German production of a film on concentration camps.
Wilder’s mother, grandmother, and other family members died in the camps. He is quoted (in a book reviewed here: http://lareviewofbooks.org/article.php?type=&id=434&fulltext=1&media=#article-text-cutpoint) as somberly remarking:
“You’ve got optimists and pessimists. The first died in the gas chambers. The others have swimming pools in Beverly Hills.”
It’s my guess there is no correct solution to the “half-full glass” problem.
What’s this have to do with the current issue? Well, yet again, I see the glass as being half full. At the end of yesterday’s post, I challenged Jason Brennan as follows:
I think it is now up to Brennan to explain why he thinks his thought experiment is about economics at all.
And, guess what? Jason has explained. He writes:
You’re right that the issue is not actually about economics.
That’s progress. It was understandable that Ross Levatter thought the issue was, in Jason Brennan’s mind at least, somewhat about economics. Otherwise, how would one understand Jason’s previous dismissal of Ross’s first critique:
My most charitable guess is that Levatter is just widely misinformed about the state of economics.
If his thought experiment is not at all about economics, then Levatter’s degree of information or misinformation about economics is irrelevant.
But now to the more-substantive philosophical issue that Levatter addresses. I probably should have highlighted this concluding paragraph of his piece that sums it up best:
In “Imagine Markets Stink. It’s Easy If You Try,” Brennan states “Libertarianism doesn’t follow from fundamental principles or axioms that are not open to question. Rather, to get to libertarianism, if you are at all sensitive to consequences, you need to make a series of empirical arguments about how institutions work. Now, in light of existing social science, it’s pretty clear that large-scale economies need to be run fundamentally on market principles. But it’s highly controversial to what extent government should supplement, enhance, regulate, or supplant markets in order to generate what consequence-sensitive libertarians would themselves agree are better outcomes.” Since he was responding to me, the implication is that I disagree with this claim. That is not true. What IS true is that Brennan’s thought experiment does not in any way suggest or imply or aid in developing any such empirical argument. That’s because it’s stated in such an extreme fashion as to lose most all discriminative power. A person who is even minimally “consequence-sensitive” can easily agree with Brennan that in the confines of his thought experiment he would no longer seek a Nozickian/Rothbardian society while not agreeing AT ALL that “it’s highly controversial to what extent government should supplement, enhance, regulate, or supplant markets.” Brennan’s thought experiment doesn’t track the intensity of one’s devotion to deontologic principles. It doesn’t strongly track the intensity of one’s sensitivity to consequences. It may be good for shocking undergraduate philosophy virgins, but, for all the reasons I’ve provided, I’m frankly surprised he finds it of any pedagogic value at all.
I would have dropped the last sentence: it’s too harsh. There is some pedagogic value. But, as Levatter says, “It doesn’t strongly track the intensity of one’s sensitivity to consequences.”